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Tyler Lunato

What TV Gets Wrong About Hacking

While it’s exciting for viewers to watch their favorite characters work together to overcome a great challenge, these shows don't show reality most of the time.

TV shows often portray the epic showdown between a hacker and an advanced security system as an exciting battle between a hero and a villain. A computer is the only thing standing in the way. It’s a unique view exclusive to the 21st century involving flashy visual effects, dramatic close-ups of fingers hammering away on keyboards and unintelligible words flashing by on-screen.

While it’s exciting for viewers to watch their favorite characters work together to overcome a great challenge, these shows are pretty far from reality most of the time. Below, we’ll explain why and also provide some security tips to help protect yourself against hacking.

It’s often not a dramatic process

Real-life hacking is typically not the dramatic, exciting thrill ride that TV makes it out to be.

Instead of an active battle between computer systems and hackers, real-life hacking tends to be far more varied and calculated. Hackers use many tactics to target computers, as shown on TV, it’s often a slow process that can take hours to complete. Sometimes hacker attacks can take days to weeks and significant planning for successful completion.

It resembles a game on TV

The flashy graphics in TV shows are often inaccurate. They almost resemble a video game actively challenging the hacker with a bunch of attacks aimed at them.

In reality, those trying to get in by trial and error by guessing passwords, keys and encryption. They utilize a combination of coding skills and automated programs to try and get in. These are often long, static pages full of loading screens and coding information as they attempt to get in.

No dramatic game or extreme typing is going on most of the time. It’s more accurate to think of hacking as solving a puzzle rather than a thrilling rush of adrenaline against the clock. Most often, hackers are simply trying to take advantage of insecurities that have been discovered in different software and security systems or they are trying to accurately guess passwords.

This is why it’s so important to keep your technology updated, as updates often remove insecurities that were found by other hackers. If your computer systems are out of date, old exploits get passed around and are often taken advantage of, making break-ins easy.

Old passwords are a common way to get inside

If you’re starting to see a pattern here, you’re not wrong. It’s often easy for hackers to simply use the information that’s already available to break into systems and then install malware that retrieves the information they’re looking for.

There are entire websites and forums on the web where people share passwords and other data found from old accounts of users. This may come from an insecure website being breached, your accidental sharing of a password or a variety of other means.

Regardless, that’s why it’s important to consistently update your passwords and never use passwords across different websites and accounts to best protect yourself.

Human error is more commonly used than brute force

While hacking through brute force methods using trial and error with the help of automated programs is absolutely possible, it’s time-consuming and difficult. After all, encryptions are meant to slow hackers down. While it may be more exciting to watch hackers battle it out against these forces on TV, that method tends to be less effective than exploiting human error.

Instead of battling a security system head-on, hackers often use one of these methods to get in:

  • Spoofed emails appearing as if they came from an employee’s superiors
    • This tricks workers into providing their credentials, which are then sent to hackers to take advantage of and collect valuable data to log in and steal information.
  • Fake websites tricking you into downloading software that steals data
    • Many hackers will plant fake sites that appear legitimate so that you install their malware and get your (or your company’s) data stolen. Never download anything that isn’t from an authorized service.
  • Fake texts
    • Just like fake emails, fake texts are becoming more common. Often, they’ll tell you to click a link so that you can do something mundane, such as pick up a package that got diverted to a new location. Don’t follow these links until you’ve confirmed who sent them.
  • Bluetooth manipulation
    • If you leave your phone open on Bluetooth without taking precautions, it’s possible to receive malware and other dangerous software via methods such as AirDrop. Make sure your settings are locked so that only trusted people can send you data.
  • Simple petty theft
    • There’s a reason people are told to not write down passwords or leave credit cards laying around. Often, hackers will scout a location and simply steal information written down or left out.

It’s less exciting in reality, but no less dangerous

Real-life hacking tends to be a relatively time-intensive task that focuses on finding insecurities – such as outdated software or human error – to exploit. The most successful hacks are subtle and sneaky, which flies in the face of what you typically see on TV.

Understanding these key differences between reality and fiction can help you better protect yourself in today’s digital era!

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* Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook 2020. BLS estimates do not represent entry-level wages and/or salaries. Multiple factors, including prior experience, age, geography market in which you want to work and degree field, will affect career outcomes and earnings. Herzing neither represents that its graduates will earn the average salaries calculated by BLS for a particular job nor guarantees that graduation from its program will result in a job, promotion, salary increase or other career growth.

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